Out of sight, always in mind
Remote monitoring equipment allows centralized workers and system administrators to know if equipment is functioning correctly at a distant site.
It can perform diagnostic work and download new software to alter service.A remote system failure used to require sending someone out to a distant location and hoping he didn’t use that occasion for eight hours to sleep to rest up for his second job. Well, remote monitoring has not only done away with that, it has extended into several other applications (see sidebar on page 22), including remote control of mobile units.
Mobile unit monitoring “In radio, our most recent development is using digital, as opposed to traditional tone signaling,” said Reed Danuser, director of marketing for Fargo, ND-based IDA. “We’re also not just controlling radios with relays to change channels, but have specific interface panels that new sophisticated radios use for scans and priority scans.”
Danuser said that not only is there a change in the number of channels available, but intelligent panels can communicate with the remote controls back at the desktop controller.
“Our goal is to take all of the information from the operator at the display on the mobile or base station radio and to translate it back to the desk of the main dispatcher,” Danuser said. “We can convey considerably more information now than we could 10 years ago.” Danuser added that the main advantages of digital control are speed and flexibility, as well as the ability to transmit a wider variety of information.
Another development worth noting, Danuser said, is more-sophisticated trunking to provide a multinetworking system tying together hundreds of sites and mobile radios.
Don Scott, vice president of marketing, JPS Communications, Raleigh, NC said, “intelligent interconnect, radio PVX and unmanned gateway” are some of the new buzzwords being used to describe the phenomenon.” This is a way to interface many different types of radios on different bandwidths and frequencies, over great distances. All of these remote cross-connections can be linked to a central radiofrequency pad and monitored in different ways: from a PC, headphones, telephone or a radio speaker.
This development is significant for public safety communications that involve the coordination of different agencies: local, state and federal. Applications include large-scale operations such as disaster relief, counter-terrorism and hostage situations.
“The trend we’re seeing is that organizations generally designate a command person who may want to monitor some distance from the actual site,” said Scott.
“Perhaps the phone lines are connected to an interconnected device that patches to one radio in each organization that’s affected. Now the command person can listen to all of the decisions being made. Perhaps in a hazardous spill situation, he will monitor local enforcement, state police, HAZMAT and one to the other as they need to communicate. In a scenario such as a raid, he can coordinate everything so everybody jumps into action at once,” Scott said.
Site monitoring Scott added that some of his company’s other products distribute receivers around a region to fill in gaps of coverage, so that, via digital signal processing, continuous information is being sent back about any situations that need to be monitored. Monitoring of remote physical information comes into play here.
“It’s important to know if equipment is functioning correctly in a distant site,” Scott said, “We can even do diagnostic work and download new software to change the service.”
Bob Betteridge, manager of sales and marketing for Barnett Engineering, Calgary, Alberta, said that his company is able to cover some 240 remote alarm conditions.
“We feel we can adapt to any system configuration,” Betteridge said. “Some measure RF power only, but our system is modular in design and can cover a wide range of monitoring functions.” He explained that monitoring functions could be acknowledged and recorded locally or remotely using telephone lines, trunked mobile radio, conventional radio, alphanumeric pagers or a data path.
Reports of exact conditions, such as power levels or high and low levels are monitored, not through a thermostat on the wall but through sensors built into the unit. Control functions, as well as alarms, are reported, creating the opportunity to take corrective action, such as switching relays to a fresh transmitter or turning on an auxiliary battery bank.
One feature of this unit, Betteridge explained, is a microphone built into the unit that can monitor audio activity from a remote phone: the sounds of engines running, intrusions or conversations by unauthorized personnel. “Video links are very expensive,” he said, “and this is a cost-effective way to get similar results.”
One reason it’s important to be able to monitor a wide range of devices, involving different manufacturers is because of the rapid buildouts of remote locations and the many mergers and acquisitions of existing distant sites. Marilyn Reeves, sales and marketing manager for Hark Systems, Summerville, SC, said “This is a confusing time for many companies, for they haven’t taken an inventory of what they have. We don’t require people to scrap their existing equipment, but we can provide them with a platform to monitor a variety of things, such as alarms, lights and card access.
“One of the things I ask people is, ‘How much have you suffered?'” Reeves said. “By this, I mean how many times has someone been dragged out of bed at night to let someone into a distant shelter because a technician didn’t get back to him with the proper key?
“Card access is being used more, not only at distant buildings, but also to get through electrified gate locks. It’s been a custom for too long now that a technician carries around a pair of shears to cut part of the fence down to let someone in because the chains on the gate lock have gotten so tangled up,” Reeves said.
Card access can be controlled remotely, not just for access, but also to specifically log who has entered and exited any remote site and at what times. Just as it is useful to monitor new acquisitions and newly constructed remote sites in terms of electronic and mechanical functions, it is also useful to track what employees are doing and whether they belong there at any particular time. Remotely controlled card access can monitor all of this activity.
Moreover, if the remote control of site functions is in place, it may not be necessary to have people there. Even if there is a regular human presence, it’s important to have mechanical backup controls.
“I caution people that if somebody is manually checking the lights, that may be fine, but if he just manually checks in a log, say, that a tower light is on, there may be trouble,” Reeves said, “If the light suddenly goes out, he may not find the reason for some time, such as the generator may be out of fuel. A mechanical monitoring would have conveyed the alarm that the fuel tank was getting low and allowed the solving of the problem before it occurred.”
Reeves also said, “With the public outcry, ‘We don’t want another tower in our backyard,’ there is now the trend for more and more tenants to share sites, for there are finite numbers of prime sites. That accentuates the need for security and more effective remote monitoring.”
William Seethaler, manager, marketing and sales, Telewave, Mountain View, CA, said that one of the main advantages of remote monitoring is at really remote sites, such as mountain locations.
“It’s much better to do things like change temperatures or frequencies remotely, than send technicians up mountain roads in bad weather,” he said.